Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Lessons from a born-again Cyclist

Just over a year ago, buoyed my Olympic enthusiasm and environmental energy (as well as the chance to put more pennies in the ongoing Arsenal season-ticket fund) I decided to try cycling to work for a week. I even wrote a blog on this esteemed website about my 'Get-to-work-on-time-trial', and as you can see from my final paragraph that day, seemed fairly confident of continuing:

‘So in conclusion, it seems that if I'm happy to get up five minutes earlier and get home five minutes later, I can get fit, save the environment, have a more comfortable commute and save a fair amount of cash. I've felt wide awake and full of energy at work, and my suits should last longer too. I'll need some car-lift favours from my wife occasionally, when I need to be in early or home late, but in return she'll get a fitter and slightly sweatier husband. The big unknown is the weather - it was fine for the whole week, with barely any wind or rain, but I'll keep going until either my colleagues subtly move their desks away, or I have to be rescued by the Buckinghamshire Ambulance service, peeling me off the bike that I'm frozen to, covered in oil and muttering about improving my cadence.'

Well, 12 months on and I'm still loving cycling to work. The weather has been tamed, and my fears of co-workers finding my cyclists' smell repugnant has proved entirely unfounded - they even gave me a new desk in the corner! However, the year hasn't gone by without a few hard-learnt lessons...

1. You’ve got to get the right gear

I started out planning to use my existing array of unused football shirts, running shorts, and ancient Red trainers (which I’ve been trying to throw away for years, but their sad holely appearance always persuaded me to keep them for gardening or the like). However, after just a week of cycling to work I decided to treat myself to a new backpack - a beautiful sleek red racing bag, complete with tuck-away rain cover and pockets. Lots of pockets. Now, this may sound weird but I’m pretty convinced it made me cycle faster, which I wasn’t previously aware a bag could do. Sadly, that can’t be said for the waterproof shorts I bought at the same time. Whilst they did a sterling job at keeping the water away from my shivering legs, they also doubled-up as a full orchestra, making a tremendous noise which saved me having lights on my bike, as anyone could hear my approach from 100 yards away. On advice from my 30km-a-day Cousin, I also bought some bright reflective winter gloves. At first I thought it was a cruel cyclist initiation joke as I pulled on the over-sized bright yellow monstrosities, but soon found they were incredibly effective at getting across your message to those drivers who enjoy squeezing me into the gutter.

2. You’ve got to avoid the wrong gear

The first day I cycled in real rain, I was strangely excited. Ready to brave the elements in my noisy shorts and showerproof jacket, I strode out ready to give up my wet-weather virginity and become a cycling man. However, it turns out that ‘showerproof’ and ‘waterproof’ are two different things. Within a minute of cycling head-first into a beautifully created low-pressure weather system, I was desperately trying to turn the sleeves of my already-soaked jacket around to give my arms another minute’s protection, to no avail. Still, I did get a seat on the train that day. The Red trainers finally gave up the ghost a few weeks in to rainy season, their persuasive holes having their flaws brutally exposed and leaving my socks to fend for themselves. I also learnt that it gets warm, quickly. The jacket-and-long-top approach, so snug when stepping out of the back door, quickly becomes a self-contained sauna with no hope of escape until your destination is reached. 

3. Time is of the essence

I’ve always been someone who likes to be on time and, being a professional commuter, adept at saving time wherever possible to give a precious few minutes more in bed. However, this reached new, almost obsessive heights once I got into my cycling rhythm. It started sensibly, planning my clothing the night before and laying them out (in put-on order) on the spare bed ready for the morning. It started to get more worrying when I began trying the recycling boxes in different places, to get them out of the way of my bike and allow me the quickest route from the garage to the back gate. But then I realised I wasn’t alone, when I accidentally entered the ‘changing room wars’, a seamlessly ongoing battle with fellow respectable colleagues to get your kit on the best hook, close to the door, near the showers, and with a covered shoe-holder rack, but not in the area where the changing rooms narrow and, well, you essentially become part of someone’s drying-off routine. I like to think I’m winning at that, having finally got my stuff on to the prime corner hook, allowing me walled protection from others and being equidistant between the entrance and the wash area. 

Having re-read that paragraph, God help me.

4. Lance Armstrong isn’t all bad

Ok, I’ll admit that it does seem the remarkably successful Lance may have had some kind of help in his multi-million dollar career, and that in some people’s eyes, he’s not really someone to be seen as a role model. But when I was hopelessly failing to conquer the steep hill on the way to the station, who was there to help me but Lance! Or at least, his website, which for some reason unbeknownst to me has been cleared of all cycling-related content and replaced with a single picture of him running (as well as contact details if you want to book him for speaking engagements…). I watched a two minute video on his site which talked about the importance of a high cadence, lowering gear before hitting the hill, and avoiding gear-shifts when standing up, all of which worked beautifully and turned me from a guy being overtaken by a 75-year-old on a vintage Raleigh (that genuinely happened) to a guy who can now make it home without having to spend the next hour in close proximity to the bathroom and unable to eat…

5. Never, ever go to Halfords

I did. I wish I hadn’t…


So there we have it, a year down the line and I’m certainly fitter, have grown to become weirdly fond of rain, and have no plans on giving it up. I also get quite a kick out of telling other people - the other day, a Sustrans rep approached our ‘huddle’ waiting for the train, surveying who cycled to work and trying to persuade people to try it. Despite that being a non-cycling day due to evening drinking commitments, I felt a huge sense of pride and righteousness when I loudly proclaimed that most days, I jump on my bike and battle against nature to reach my destination. If anything, I felt even prouder when I heard the gentlemen in front giving their reasons for not cycling- the word ‘lunatics’ was used at least twice…

And if nothing else I can say that in the last year, at least I’ve managed to persuade the girls next door that Arsenal isn’t all I care about:

John (@johnJsills) +John J Sills